The Newtown Pentacle

Altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi

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A public service announcement from the Newtown Pentacle.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The City of Greater New York, like many of the other older North American East Coast cities, uses a combined sewer system. What that means is that sanitary waste water pipes, leading from the sort of domestic tackle pictured above, enters into an underground sewer pipe which also handles storm water. When the weather is dry, the municipal agency tasked by NYC with handling the flow (the Department of Environmental Protection or DEP) does a fairly passable job. When the weather is wet, however, things start getting ugly. A quarter inch of rain, citywide, translates into a billion gallons of storm water entering the network of pipes, junctions, and weirs hidden below the streets. This additional volume of storm water surges into the shared pipes, and the mixed up storm and sanitary water ends up having to be purged out into area waterways via open pipes. There are about 400 of these “Combined Sewer Outfalls” in NYC.

As you’d imagine, the DEP is fairly careful about handling this, and to their credit – working diligently to correct this situation. Not always willingly, of course, but they are in fact “doing something.”

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Massive “gray infrastructure” investments like the Newtown Creek Waste Water Treatment plant in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint section are part of the story. Designed to handle in excess of 800 million gallons a day of what the DEP staff refers to as “honey,” this particular plant is the newest and largest of the 14 sewer plants the agency maintains. If you flush a toilet anywhere in Manhattan below 79th street (and in small sections of Brooklyn and Queens), your “honey” is headed here via a pump house found on the corner of East 13th street and Avenue D on the Lower East Side. A technolological marvel, the NCWWTP is unfortunately unique in DEP’s property portfolio. The Bowery Bay plant in Astoria opened during the Great Depression in 1939 for instance, and the oldest operating plant in DEP’s system is in Jamaica, Queens which opened in 1903 (and last received an upgrade in 1943).

The stratospheric costs of upgrading their plants has caused DEP to embrace a bit of lateral thinking in recent years, which is where conservation and “green infrastructure” come in.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Green infrastructure takes several forms. There’s what the DEP used to call “bio swales” which a clever Deputy Commissioner has recently rebranded as “rain gardens.” This program will, when you put together all of the rain gardens citywide, have opened up a fairly large acreage of open soil for storm water to enter the ground via, rather than dancing along the concrete until finding a storm drain. The emerging technology and policy that they’re still figuring out are “green roofs.” The problem with retrofitting old structures for green roofs is that more often than not, the roof is structurally the weakest section of a building. The other problem is convincing building owners that there’s a benefit in spending time and treasure on them. 

A humble narrator is a back room conversation kind of fellow, and the ears I’ve been whispering in for the last few years have been filled with this crazy idea of creating a municipal code requirement – in the same way NYC requires fire stairs and suppression systems, lights on the front of your house, sidewalks of a certain size and specification and so on – for storm water neutrality in new construction. I’ve been told it’s up to DEP to request codifying it, as it’s not up to City Planning or anybody on that side of City Hall. The Real Estate Industrial Complex people I’ve mentioned this to are generally into it, as a green roof would be a saleable amenity which would enhance their offerings and wouldn’t increase their construction costs noticeably.

Upcoming Tours and Events

Friday, August 3rd, 6:30 p.m. – Infrastructure Creek – with Newtown Creek Alliance.

If you want infrastructure, then meet NCA historian Mitch Waxman at the corner of Greenpoint Avenue and Kingsland Avenue in Brooklyn, and in just one a half miles he’ll show you the largest and newest of NYC’s 14 sewer plants, six bridges, a Superfund site, three rail yards with trains moving at street grade, a highway that carries 32 million vehicle trips a year 106 feet over water. The highway feeds into the Queens Midtown Tunnel, and we’ll end it all at the LIC ferry landing where folks are welcome to grab a drink and enjoy watching the sunset at the East River, as it lowers behind the midtown Manhattan skyline.

Tix and more details here.

“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

Written by Mitch Waxman

August 3, 2018 at 11:00 am

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